There are a few things you should know about Jaren Lewison: His favorite food is matzah ball soup. He’s a freshman at USC, majoring in psychology. When he met Adam Sandler, it was one of the best experiences of his life. Oh, and he’s one of the breakout stars of Mindy Kaling’s heartwarming and funny new show on Netflix, Never Have I Ever.
“Every day when I drove into work, I was still pinching myself that this was my life. Especially because I was a very normal high school kid two months prior,” Jaren explains to me over Zoom from his parents’ house in Texas. “We filmed at Universal Studios where I took a tour like four years ago and [thought] man, this would be cool to work here. It’s surreal, especially for a normal high school kid. That’s what you dream of — it’s literally dreams coming true.”
Never Have I Ever could not have come at a better time. It’s like Mindy and Netflix knew exactly what we needed in the midst of a global pandemic: 10 episodes of a binge-worthy teen rom-com that is heartwarming, funny, and guaranteed to make you feel better. The show debuted on Netflix on April 27 and quickly shot to worldwide fame, launching several young breakout stars’ careers: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (Devi), Darren Barnet (Paxton), Lee Rodriguez (Fabiola), Ramona Young (Eleanor), Richa Moorjani (Kamala), and of course Jaren, who plays Ben Gross.
After writing a listicle on everything you have to know about this 19-year-old Jewish actor, he commented on our Instagram, clarifying he was not 5’8″ but 5’6″ (we have to stan!). He then took a break from studying for his finals to chat with Alma over Zoom. He’s friendly, warm, enthusiastic, and still can’t believe that his big break is finally here.
“I haven’t really left my house at all, obviously. So I don’t think it’s really hit me yet that people have even seen this,” Jaren explains. “I mean, my social media definitely went nuts. I think when people come up to me and tell me in person how much it means to them — it may start to hit me. But it still kind of feels like a dream.”
Jaren’s not the only one blown away by the response to the show. Their cast group chat, he tells me, just “pops off all day long. We’re just all so in awe of how amazing it is. And how much people are loving it.”
Jaren has been acting since he was 5 years old, with his first role as a kid named Joshua on Barney & Friends. He graduated from high school a month before he auditioned for Never Have I Ever, sending in his tape from Texas. His manager told him the producers, along with creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, were going to see it, and he tried to play it cool. “I was trying not to get too excited, you know? Because sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
He was in Nebraska for what he called “Theater Nationals” — a real thing, more officially known as the International Thespian Festival — when he found out he got the part as Ben Gross. “It was like the best month of my life,” he says with a smile.
“Netflix has always been my dream. I watch Netflix 24/7. So when I got the role, I couldn’t even believe it. I [kept saying], are you guys serious?! It blew every expectation that I had away. The thing about Netflix is that everybody that works for them is unbelievably talented in everything they do. And especially people that worked on our show tend to work a ton with Mindy and Lang and that whole team. So the way that they function is a fine-oiled machine of incredibly happy professional people.”
Playing Ben Gross — Devi’s nemesis-turned-ally-turned-maybe-love-interest — means Jaren was not in every scene, but he still hung around on set to soak up as much knowledge as possible.
“I literally tried to do every single job on set, to help me as an actor, but also because I was curious. Everyone was so willing to help me. And everyone has such a great attitude. It was literally the most fun I think I’ve ever had.”
While he was filming the season, he was also in his freshman fall at USC. I asked how he balanced classes, adjusting to college, and filming a Netflix show at the same time. He laughed, saying, “It was hard. I didn’t sleep very much.” He’s planning to major in psychology with a minor in forensics and criminality. He worked out with his professors that he would be absent for a significant amount of class time, but would stay on top of his work.
“I’m really good at time management and I kind of always have been. I’m a very planned person. And luckily, Never Have I Ever made it so easy, because they would tell me what my schedule was 14 days before. So if I had a 10-page essay, I’d write it three weeks in advance, so that when I was in the heat of shooting, I would already have everything done and I could turn it in three days early. I never got penalized for being late.”
He hasn’t finished his freshman year yet — like every other college student across the country, he is finishing remotely. Jaren describes himself as a “routine person,” so he’s sticking to a routine to manage during quarantine. He has Zoom classes in the morning, works out or runs, and hangs out with his sister. Every night, he watches an episode of Love Island UK with his guy friends — the seven of them will Zoom and stream it on one of their computers. “My buddies at school got me into it,” he explains of the Love Island obsession. “It just takes our mind off of things.” (His favorite show, however, remains Game of Thrones, of which he wishes he could totally wipe his memory of the show to re-watch from the beginning.)
That’s a key difference between Jaren and his Never Have I Ever character, Ben: friendship. Also, sports. Jaren was a varsity football captain, and a varsity powerlifter, whereas, as Jaren says, “Ben hates sports.” And, Jaren floated between lots of different friends and friend groups — “I was able to meet people with different perspectives, which hopefully Ben will have the ability to do now that he’s realized that he should be caring for other people a little bit more.”
Ben is constantly competing with Devi for the top academic spot. Compared to Ben’s high school experience, Jaren says, “I loved high school, and I’m pretty sure Ben does not.”
“Ben is very academically focused; I was as well. I’ve always been a learner. I always enjoyed thinking outside the box, challenging myself, and taking hard courses like Ben does. I was in AP classes all throughout high school, the same as Ben,” Jaren says. “I definitely think that he’s probably got a bit more academic rigor behind him than I did. He’s trying to get into [the] Ivy League, which I definitely was not thinking about.”
Jaren grew up in a Jewish family in Dallas, Texas, with an older sister, Mikayla. He attended a Conservative Jewish day school for 14 years, where his mom still teaches kindergarten. At USC, he’s involved in Hillel, and Judaism is still a big part of his life.
“I’m very proud of being Jewish and being a part of the Jewish community,” Jaren says. “You know, when I read the character description, it [said] Ben’s Jewish and had Blake Griffin at his bar mitzvah I was like, oh my God, this is my time, let’s go! It’s great being able to play a Jewish character.” (Ah, Jews and basketball.)
Jaren’s own bar mitzvah? “Pretty standard, honestly. I had a nice service. I read my Torah portions, did my haftarah. I was a little nervous going into it, [but] I ended up doing well. Then we had a little party on this rooftop kind of restaurant place. It was nice, small. I didn’t want to have like a massive party, like Ben definitely had.”
If he could pick any celebrity to attend his bar mitzvah? Hands down Adam Sandler. Why? “I met him once, and it made all of my dreams come true. And if he sang any kind of song, I think I would faint. When I met him, it was the coolest thing ever. And he was so amazing.”
The two met when Jaren was 13 and playing Adam’s son in Men, Women, and Children. It wasn’t even a speaking role — it was “incredibly small.” Still, Jaren says, “it was the best experience I’ve ever had. You know the saying that you’re not supposed to meet your heroes? Totally not the case for me. He was so nice. He was energetic and so focused and professional. He was talking to me a bunch — he did not have to do any of that, at all. He even talked to my mom a little bit! Anytime that I can get the chance to hang out with him again, yeah, I would do it in a heartbeat.” (Adam, you read it here first.)
Speaking of Jewish celebrities, when it came to the special episode of Never Have I Ever that focused on Ben’s life instead of Devi’s, Nice Jewish Boy (TM) Andy Samberg stepped in to narrate (as opposed to tennis champ John McEnroe who narrated the other nine episodes).
“That episode was the biggest shock to me,” Jaren laughs. “I was at a table read, for episode two or three. And I was talking with [co-creator] Lang, and I [said], ‘I can’t wait to read more of the scripts. These are so funny!’ And she goes, ‘Oh, yeah, I think you’ll really like episode six. It’s all about Ben.’ And I [replied], ‘Oh, haha, okay.’ And then I got the script and I was like, Oh my God, this is all about Ben.”
“I was a little nervous at first,” he says of filming that episode. “But it was such a great experience. And I was so honored, honestly, to show that other side of Ben. To be given that character arc is what an actor dreams of. So for the writers to give [me] that opportunity was so exciting, and I was so appreciative of it. That episode is really important for Ben’s character, and understanding his motivations behind a lot of things that he does. I’m so happy with how it turned out. I was emotional the first time watching it.”
If the show is renewed for another season (Netflix, you better), Jaren wants Ben to keep caring for others, open up more, and show his vulnerability. “On the outside, he does look abrasive at times, and he doesn’t come across as this genuine, really sweet kid, which, underneath all of that, he really is. If he lets more people see that, he’s gonna be a lot happier and less lonely and hopefully not the loneliest boy in the world anymore.”
As for his family, Jaren says his mom has re-watched the show over and over again. And so has his sister, who he says is his biggest fan. “My sister and I are best friends, we’re incredibly close. So having her throughout this experience was really meaningful for me. And she helps me with social media, because I’m not great with social media.”
But as close as he is with his family, Jaren watched the series by himself — he wanted to first experience it alone.
“The first time seeing it, I was speechless. Because number one, it’s super weird to see yourself. But also, I was thinking about every memory that I had shooting each scene. I was like oh my God, this is when we were laughing about this. And then I had to re-watch it again, because I was so distracted. But I really enjoyed the show. I thought the other actors, my castmates, were all just so funny and had so much depth. When I was watching, I just felt this overwhelming sense of pride. Again, it’s a dream come true.”
Image of Jaren Lewison in header via Netflix.